Crowds throng Stockholm for gay fest

Hundreds of thousands of people braved pouring rain in Stockholm Saturday to watch or participate in this year's colourful EuroPride parade to protest discrimination against homosexuals.

Crowds throng Stockholm for gay fest

“It’s just marvelous to feel this sense of community, that there are so many other people like you,” Mickael Norrell told AFP, tossing the hair from his long blond wig over the pink feather boa on his shoulder.

Sweden is hosting the week-long EuroPride 2008 festival, which takes place in a different European country each year. Organisers had expected as many as 100,000 to take part in the parade and around 500,000 spectators.

But the heavy rain pounding the Swedish capital appears to have dissuaded many from coming out.

“Around 45,000 people took part in the parade and more than 450,000 watched,” EuroPride spokeswoman Anna Söderström told AFP.

“The weather has been terrible, so we’re thrilled so many came,” she said, shrugging off the fact that the number of those participating fell short of last year’s sun-drenched Stockholm Pride parade.

Colourful umbrellas lined the parade route through central Stockholm as onlookers craned their necks to see the passing floats draped in rainbow flags and pumping out loud music.

Flamboyant transvestites, some wearing only shiny thongs, and others dressed to look like Marie Antoinette, strutted alongside groups including Dykes on Bikes, the Homosexual Doctors’ Association, Gay Police and Proud Siblings and Friends of Homosexuals.

Most Swedish political parties, some 80 companies and the Swedish Lutheran

Church, among others, were also represented. While other gay pride parades this year have been marred by violence and protests, Stockholm police said Saturday evening they had not registered a single incident during the parade in liberal-minded Sweden.

“We’re so grateful for the freedoms we have here,” said Jan Wahlstroem, 45, who was attending the parade with a group of friends from across Europe. “That’s not something we can take for granted,” he added, waving his large rainbow flag and a silver-sequined cowboy hat at a passing float.

Further along, Hanna and Kirsi Sinimetsae excitedly tried to catch a glimpse of friends in the parade who have also come over from Finland for the festival.

“It was natural for us to come since we are a rainbow family,” said Hanna,

28, who is carrying one of their two small children in a multi-coloured shawl.

“We have a pride parade in Helsinki too, but this is so much bigger. It’s

wonderful,” she said, squeezing her 29-year-old partner’s hand.

Meanwhile parade participant Norrell, who refused to reveal his age (“You never ask a lady her age,” he said in mock shock covering his bright pink mouth with a manicured hand), took a moment to rest his high-heeled feet alongside his less-flashy “husband” of nine years.

While the word “marriage” cannot yet legally be applied to same-sex couples in Sweden, homosexuals who form civil unions have since 1995 enjoyed the same rights as married couples. The Swedish government is currently preparing a bill that would remove any reference to gender in the marriage law.

“I only dress this way once every couple of years, but when I feel like doing it, it feels great to say ‘What the hell, I’m gonna do it!'” said Norrell, pointing to his super-short silver sequined dress.

Norrell first marched in a pride parade a decade ago.

“Back then, it was an amazing feeling spotting someone else wearing a dog-tag (indicating that they were taking part in the festival). Suddenly I could see all these other people like me,” he said.

“Today, it’s no longer any big deal. We’re no longer in hiding. That’s gotta be a sign of progress,” he added.